New hotel review website trumpsTripAdvisor, hires its own reporters

Although it's been lurking online since March of last year, the website Oyster Hotel Reviews has seized this moment to alert the world that it has arrived. The timing is surely not accidental: Travel review website TripAdvisor.com, a rival, is battling bad press about deficiencies in its system.

Oyster gives hotel guidance, too, except there, readers don't enter the primary reviews. That's taken care of by a team of writers, mostly journalists, recruited by the site and sent to each hotel without announcing they were staying there. They take photos of the properties (about 50,000 "undoctored" images are online now) and expose the pros and cons ("nearly a million words" so far, say the site's administrators).
Currently, only a few destinations are covered: Miami, Aruba, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic, with New York City and Las Vegas entering the mix in July. In none of the cities is the coverage comprehensive -- nothing rated below two stars, where, frankly, reviews are most needed -- and the spotlight falls largely on resorts and full-service hotels where you'll pay $175 or more a night. That's a risky price point at which it's worth having an advance team of trusted inspectors, but on the other hand, they're still the more expensive properties in each location.

Sending writers on an all-expenses-paid trip to a hotel is an expensive proposition, so you have to wonder what Oyster is getting out of this deal. I asked its founder, Elie Seidman, just how the site expects to make that money back. The short answer: destination-specific ads. In the case of the Jamaican hotels, those include the Jamaica Tourist Board and JetBlue, which flies there.

The second mode of income is a little more complicated. If readers like the way the hotel sounds and decide to book a room, Oyster will get a "referral fee" (i.e. a commission) for the reservation. It's not hard to spot the conflict: A kickback structure could potentially encourage the website -- or any website with a dog in the fight -- to favor only positive coverage in the hopes of landing more bookings. But Seidman implied that kind of skewed coverage wouldn't happen on Oyster.

"We don't end up staying at a lot of truly awful places, but when we do stay at someplace awful, we call it out." To prove it, Seidman pointed me to a photo of what appears to be a blood or rust stain on a sheet taken at the Negril Escape Resort and Spa in Jamaica.

To soothe suspicions of payoffs and credibility, each writer is named in his or her review, and readers can peruse their other assessments and a sketch of their professional résumés. The guy who captured that ugly stain, William Begeny, used to work for the Mayor of New York City, so you know he's not afraid to call out monkey business.

It's also useful to compare the ratings style of each writer. Dipayan Gupta, a Canadian with experience working with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, proclaims the service at South Beach's Shelborne Beach Resort, "completely unenthusiastic, bordering on hostile."

If you disagree with any write-up, you can enter a secondary, moderated comment about your own experience -- I can't wait until hotel managers get wind of that feature and start to manipulate it.

Even if you're not inclined to believe the words of the writers posting reviews on Oyster, the pictures, which look as if you could have taken them yourself, say a thousand words in themselves.

It's still not perfect, but so far, this slowly unfolding project is a step in the right direction. It gives me a lot more confidence than the anonymous carnival going on over at TripAdvisor, Yelp, or any number of other message boards. My main concern is how such a small site can remain profitable enough to be widely useful and continually refreshed with current information.

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